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Laurel tells officials in NFA controversy to file leave

Bella Cariaso - The Philippine Star
Laurel tells officials in NFA controversy to file leave
Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. on November 6, 2023.
STAR / Jesse Bustos

MANILA, Philippines — The administrator of the National Food Authority and another official who had accused him of illegally selling NFA rice to selected traders have been asked to take a leave of absence while an investigation is ongoing.

Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. yesterday revealed having instructed NFA administrator Roderico Bioco and his accuser, assistant administrator for operations Lemuel Pagayunan, to both take a leave of absence or be suspended.

“It is best… I strongly advise them to take a leave of absence, at least the head and the accuser, to be fair,” Laurel said in a chance interview at the Hog Festival yesterday at Gateway Mall in Cubao, Quezon City.

Laurel added that he had already informed Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin of the internal investigation after the letter of complaint of Pagayunan reached the Office of the President.

“We already talked about this and this internal investigation is the first step,” Laurel said.

Based on Pagayunan’s letter complaint, which reached the OP on Feb. 13, Bioco issued memoranda allowing the sale of 75,000 bags of NFA rice totaling P93.75 million to certain traders.

“Unfortunately, when the issue erupted, I was abroad, Sri Lanka and Abu Dhabi. I just arrived yesterday. But when I was abroad, I already ordered an internal investigation on this matter and I actually chose people who are not involved in NFA, not even in the DA,” Laurel said.

“We appointed somebody from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to form a team to look into this matter and we will get to the bottom of this issue,” Laurel added.

He said the concerned NFA officials should volunteer to file a leave of absence instead of waiting for him to suspend them.

“If you will ask me, it is better for the warring groups to voluntarily take a leave of absence instead of waiting for me to act but of course, we have to presume innocence for the meantime,” Laurel said.

“We have to be impartial until proven guilty or innocent, so this internal investigation is very important so let us give it time,” he said.

He maintained he personally wanted to determine the root cause of the controversy.

“Of course, once it is clear to me that the person has a problem, of course I will suspend. As of the moment, it’s too early but my recommendation is to give the investigating panel a chance to do their work properly without any hindrance,” Laurel said.

Laurel said he expects development in the investigation within two to three weeks.

In his complaint, Pagayunan has accused Bioco of selling “deteriorating or aging stocks” of NFA rice to G4Rice Mill Corp. and NBK San Pedro Rice Mill.

“However, I also received information that the stocks sold to these rice traders were not actually deteriorating but were treated and fit for consumption,” Pagayunan said in his letter.

At the same time, Pagayunan cited a memorandum issued by then assistant administrator for operations John Robert Hermano on Nov. 13, 2023 instructing that the stocks be rebagged in containers without NFA markings prior to selling them as commercial rice.

The memorandum was addressed to NFA Region 1 regional manager Lolita Sanedrin, NFA Region 2 regional manager Miguel Tecson, former NFA Region 4 regional manager Leo Damole and NFA Region 5 regional manager Osmundo Guinto Jr.

He added that while NFA may dispose of stocks before their quality deteriorates, such action should be done in accordance with existing guidelines, such as publication of notice of sale as well as an announcement of the date of bidding.

The sale transactions in question did not undergo the required procedures.

Pagayunan said Bioco and Region 4 regional manager Alwin Uy directly contracted commercial rice traders for the transaction. Bioco earlier defended the sale of rice to some traders, saying the NFA is allowed to dispose of aging stocks.

He added the NFA is mandated to keep and dispose of 99.9 percent stocks in good and consumable condition.

Old practice

Farmers’ group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) executive director Jayson Cainglet said the illegal sale of NFA rice is not a new issue.

“Based on the report we received, last year, there were also similar incidents of illegal sale of NFA rice,” Cainglet said.

For this year alone, two traders benefited from the sale of NFA rice, he said.

According to Cainglet, the transaction did not even undergo bidding or auction.

“They (NFA) claimed that these were old stocks but the complainant and our independent sources from the NFA disputed this,” Cainglet added.

“We will accept if these were aging stocks but the investigation should be able to determine if indeed these were old stocks and were sold at much lower price,” he noted.

Cainglet said cheap NFA rice should benefit ordinary people through the Kadiwa stores or the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

“We also imported rice to have buffer stock but the NFA claims these were rotten stocks, meaning it took them months to dispose of their stocks,” he said.

Also at the Hog Festival, Sen. Cynthia Villar told reporters that the Senate would investigate the alleged anomalous sale of NFA rice to traders.

“We will investigate because I have personal experience about that, so I am not happy there,” Villar said.

When asked about a “mafia” engaged allegedly in manipulating the sale of agriculture products, Villar said it’s an “old issue.”

She said it’s the Rice Tariffication Law that she helped pass that removed the power of traders to import rice exclusively. “They only have the power to buy from local farmers,” she said, adding that the law in effect liberalized rice importation.

“You should sell (rice) to the people who need it,” she said, addressing the NFA. “It is cheap because of the government subsidy. It is not given to the trader. It is given to the people so that the people – the poor – can buy cheap rice.” — Cecille Suerte Felipe

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